CARACAS, Venezuela — A nationwide strike was underway early Thursday as opposition forces sought to cripple the government of President Nicolás Maduro.
The 24-hour-strike that began at 6 a.m. was meant to express national disapproval of Maduro's plan to convene a constitutional assembly. The assembly would reshape the Venezuelan governing system to consolidate the ruling party's power over the few institutions that remain outside its control. The opposition is boycotting a July 30 election to select members of the assembly.
"It's started well. There's no movement, everything is closed, we all need to do our best to get rid of this tyrant," said protester Miguel Lopez, 17, holding a shield with "No To Dictatorship!" emblazoned on it, as he manned a roadblock in Caracas in a main thoroughfare devoid of traffic.
The strike was called amidst skyrocketing inflation and food and medicine shortages in Venezuela.
The country's largest business group, Fedecamaras, has cautiously avoided full endorsement of the strike, but its members have told employees that they won't be punished for coming to work. Fedecamaras played a central role in the months-long 2002-2003 strike that Chavez's political rivals and opponents in Venezuela's private business sector orchestrated in an attempt to topple him.
Chavez emerged from the strike and exerted control over the private sector with years of expropriations, strict regulations and imports bought with oil money and meant to replace local production. Business groups estimate that 150,000 Venezuelan businesses have closed over the last 15 years.
Government-run industries will remain open and Labor Minister Nestor Ovalles said the Maduro administration would punish private companies that close in sympathy with the strike.
"We won't allow, and we'll be closely watching, any disruption that violates the working class' right to work," Ovalles said. "Businesses that join the strike will be punished."
The business group's incoming president, economist Carlos Larrazabal, said the strike would be of limited duration to avoid worsening Venezuela's already dire shortages of food and other basic products.
"Inventory levels right are very precarious," Larrazabal said. "If the supply chains are affected more than they are right now, we could have a bigger problem."
This report includes material from Reuters.